06 September 2007

Morning dew, wild mushrooms and the Cuban missile crisis

“Uncle Bakyt” claims he served in the Soviet Army in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. His nephew, a colleague of mine in the law department at American University, said Bakyt never revealed he was in Caribbean until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Apparently his uncle and the other Soviet soldiers in Cuba had been sworn to secrecy.

I met Bakyt, now a sheepherder in his 70s, last weekend at his camp in the Kungey-Alatau Mountains just north of the village of Kara Oy on Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. My friend at the university, a Kyrgyz native, invited several people to his property near the summer resort town of Cholpon-Ata for a weekend of hiking and swimming.

Having spent more than 30 years in the American southwest, I’ve run across more than a few sheepherders during my hikes in western Colorado, New Mexico, southeast Utah and, to a lesser degree, northern Arizona. It seems as though their long periods of solitude allows them to polish up a handful of grandiloquent and unrelated monologues. Bakyt, who has been married for times and has children from each, was no exception. He and his nephew, an effusive storyteller himself, teamed up for a performance with few breaks. Not all of their tales were translated for me, but I did not feel cheated one bit by simply watching them.

To one member of our party with bad knees, Bakyt said he has no health problems because he begins each day walking barefoot in the mountain dew. To our tea and bread he added wild mushrooms he gathers and seasons in plastic jugs with creek water, salt, garlic and local herbs. Kyrgyzstan has extraordinary water, mostly from springs and glacial melt, and according to my friend, no poisonous mushrooms.

When he realized I was an American, Bakyt pulled out his copy of 19th century American short stories by Washington Irving that included “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Bakyt seemed shocked that I didn’t immediately recognize the book. Hey, the headless horsemen on the cover should have been a clue, but it was written in Russian and I had no idea why he handed me the book in the first place.

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